It was one of the most historic bills ever passed by Congress. And when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965—50 years ago Thursday—he declared that enactment was a matter of morality and not just politics. “This act flows from a clear and simple wrong,” the president said. “Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny….It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.” He called the measure “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom”—a law that, very specifically, aimed to knock down legal barriers at the state and local levels that hindered or prevented African Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote. But the issue is still being debated today.
And the battle will be rejoined this fall when Congress returns from its summer recess to consider restoring and strengthening parts of the law that were struck down by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision two years ago. In addition, the issue of voting rights has become a subject of contention in the presidential campaign. Democratic and Republican candidates are taking potshots at one another, and political consultants of both major parties say the fate of the law could have an impact on the outcome in 2016 by determining who can actually vote in key states.
In its decision, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the high court held that a key part of the law was invalid—the requirement that some states with histories of voting-related racial discrimination “pre-clear” any voting-law changes with the federal government. The court ruling enabled nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without prior federal approval. Chief Justice John Roberts, who voted with the majority to weaken the law, conceded that, “The act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.” But Roberts added in his opinion: “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” and he saw no need to continue the law’s restrictions on states that had discriminated in the past.